During a recent campus interview, I was talking to the chair of the search committee about the position for which I was interviewing. The position was to replace a faculty member who had been in the job for almost 30 years. I told the chair that I’d like to meet the faculty member I would be replacing, and his response to my question was interesting. He told me that he was hesitant to introduce me to her because he didn’t want me to think that I had to do everything the way she had been doing it in the same ways she had been doing it for 30 years. Rather, he wanted someone to come into the position and make it their own.
He said, “I know it’s hard to make the transition from being a grad student and thinking you need to ask the expert about what they think to you, yourself, being the expert in something.”
I thought he made an interesting assumption about where I was coming from. I didn’t really feel the need to know how things were done in order to replicate them. Rather, I just wanted to know a bit about the institutional history, learn about any battles she found and won or lost, and figure out if some things had or hadn’t been attempted. In other words, what the search committee chair advocated—that I take something and make it my own—was exactly what I was trying to do.
This brief conversation with him made me think a lot about what being a faculty member means (as opposed to what being a graduate student means). I have been fortunate during my time as a grad student to be responsible for my own classes of students. I have had the authority to create syllabi, run classes, and grade papers. But the overall outcomes of those classes were given to me (even if I was responsible for determining the details). I didn’t have the authority to propose classes or change the curriculum for undergraduate students. But as a faculty member, I will have those opportunities. In fact, I’ll be one of the people who is considered the “expert” in my field, and I’ll be the person who others seek out for advice and ideas. And that can be a scary thing; I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m done learning or done experiencing things and growing, and I certainly won’t ever feel like I know everything.
So to me, being a faculty member means that I’ll continue to seek out new knowledge, and I’ll get to work with people—both other faculty and students alike—who will always encourage me to keep learning and growing. Being a faculty member means being one of the fortunate individuals who gets to encourage others—other faculty members, grad students, undergrads, administrators—to find their own strengths and use those strengths to find their bliss.